So apparently drone racing is a thing, and there is no better place to challenge a racer's skills than a forest. Trees and branches abound, there is danger at every turn. This is why such a setting was used for one of the most beloved scenes of the Star Wars trilogy, and watching the video below you will swear you are on a speeder ripping it through the wolds of Endor.
This technology may be awesomely fun and it sure does produce some fantastic visuals, but it also has a darker side, and there is a very good chance that it will be coming to the battlefield in the not so distant future.
So how exactly were these amazing shots captured? Suprisingly, the answer does not disappoint. Each of the 'speeders' is equipped with a camera and a line-of-sight data link that sends its picture to a human wearing virtual-reality like goggles or a flat panel display. So capturing these images was probably a really fun experience.
Eventually, high-resolution 3D cameras will be fitted to the little quadcopters themselves, along with communications systems that are able to push the video data to 3D goggles like the Oculus Rift. The result of which may be a new thrilling form of racing where the small drones are ditched for much larger, and faster ones. Think pod racing but without anyone on-board to die when one plows into the side of a canyon.
Although virtual speeder racing looks like a lot of fun, there is an emerging tactical application here as well. Seeing how maneuverable these small radio controlled drones are, and seeing how their real-time, 'first person' control capabilities have evolved, using a system like this for scouting, or even for taking out enemy combatants on future battlefields is almost inevitable.
Currently, man-portable unmanned aircraft are becoming commonplace, the Raven being one of the most popular, but there are many others. But these systems are meant for overwatch, not for dynamic low-altitude maneuvering in complex environments. Yet even these overwatch focused systems are becoming weaponized, turning them into "optionally reusable" killer drones. This is accomplished by implanting a relatively small but potent warhead into the aircraft's fuselage. The operator can use this charge to attack the enemy by simply flying the aircraft into the target. The Switchblade is one of these suicidal, miniaturized, unmanned aircraft that can be used for surveillance or attack, albeit just once for the later.
Providing overwatch from on high and a single use attack mode via a small fixed-wing remote control aircraft is one thing, but the ability for a squadron of soldiers to literally fly a small quadcopter down a street or into a building that they are about to move through makes fantastic tactical sense. In such a role, these small drones could become the infantry's robotic scouts, reconnoitering an area in an expendible manner before putting a soldier's life at risk. If one gets caught-up, crashes or is destroyed by the enemy, simply launch another one. Such a system's persistence is a weapon onto itself.
These militarized micro-copters could also be used to constantly hover above a platoon of soldiers moving through an enemy area. Fitted with very sensitive microphones they could be used to detect exactly where hostile fire is coming from instantaneously as it erupts. They could also be sent to fly into an abandoned building to check for snipers or inspect rooftops for RPG wielding enemy combatants. A friendly sniper's spotter could use them to get a better view on their surroundings, or even see what is going on in blind spots such as streets that dump into the sniper's field of fire.
Militarized RC copters could even work as a beyond-line-of-sight communications relay for troops that find communications challenging in dense urban or mountainous terrain. Even if used only during emergency situations, the ability to launch such small drone, have it climb to higher altitude and simply make a satellite phone call with a prerecorded simple message along with coordinates could save lives. Most notably, such a system could have been very useful during the doomed Operation Redwings, which was made popular in the best selling book and hit movie Lone Survivor.
Eventually, as active networks that allow for highly-reliable non-line of sight data exchange become more prevalent over the battlefield, and small unmanned aircraft and battery technology continues to evolve, urban battles, such as the one in Fallujah, may start out with hundreds, or even thousands, of small remote controlled 'man in the loop' drones being released into the combat zone.
This swarm of remote control aircraft could patrol down streets and into structures, clearing areas and identifying targets for air strikes or raids, or even taking out those targets all by themselves via an on-board light-weight weapon or just by blowing themselves up near the target itself.
By arming these micro UAVs with explosives you create a suicide robot that would be feared psychologically by the enemy on truly unprecedented levels, as they could literally be able to sneak in a open window at night and detonate themselves above the enemy as they sleep. Conversely, the reality that the enemy could potentially access this same sort of technology is already having implications both on battlefield and here at home.
Being expendable, these small military bots could literally take down a city block by block, with actual troops following close behind. Or rather, once the troops that control these drones have cleared the city virtually and from behind the front lines, they could put down their virtual reality goggles and pick up their assault rifle for a final, manned push through their objectives.
What this all adds up to is the fact that warfare as we know will continue to change drastically due to not only the high-end of the unmanned aircraft spectrum, which includes stealthy unmanned air combat vehicles (UCAVs) and high-flying spy drones, but also from the low-end of the unmanned aircraft spectrum as well.
Eventually, as these consumer grade, agile unmanned aircraft become hardier, more capable and longer ranged, they may very well become the 'boots on the ground's' best friend in a war zone. Who knows, farther down the line they may just replace those boots all together.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com